Polling gets Narrower as Sunday’s Presidential Elections in Costa Rica Approach on Sunday

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COHA revisits its interview of Ottón Solís.
Arias – revered by some, but an object of disdain by more than a few.

After four years under the leadership of Oscar Arias, Costa Ricans will vote for a new president this Sunday, February 7th. In October 2008, Laura Chinchilla resigned as Vice President and Minister of Justice and Peace to launch her presidential campaign under the banner of the ruling Partido Liberación National (PLN or Liberal National Party). In office, she had one of the highest approval ratings in the country’s recent political history. Six months ago, the outcome of the upcoming presidential election seemed entirely predictable; today, the margin has drastically narrowed. If Chinchilla does not receive more than 40% of the vote, Costa Rican electoral law requires a run-off election. As of today, the election almost certainly is heading for a second round.

Meet the Candidates
The top three candidates for this coming Sunday’s presidential ballot are Chinchilla of the Liberation National Party, Otto Guevara of the Libertarian Movement (ML), and Ottón Solís of the Citizens Action Party (PAC). The forthcoming descriptions are not meant to be an exhaustive history of the candidates’ backgrounds, but rather an overview of key developments that have occurred as the campaign has unfolded.

Laura Chinchilla:
If elected, Chinchilla would become the first female president of Costa Rica. According to her website, she has run on a tough-on-crime platform and proposes a robust increase in the country’s free trade orientation. According to a poll taken on February 2nd by Unimer Research International, 41.9% of respondents said they would vote for her, a significant drop from the 53% of voters who said they would back her in a similar poll that appeared in the daily Al Día last October. Although Arias has still not endorsed her officially, she is clearly his favorite. In April 2008, in an interview with the national daily La Nación, Arias described her as “a woman with a great calling to public service […] she has shown leadership, responsibility, and hard work in all of her positions.” Chinchilla would represent a continuation of the Arias administration in terms of economic policies, promotion of free-trade and foreign investment, so these words come as no surprise. Chinchilla exemplifies the “more of the same” choice and will rule the country using the same amalgam of light left rhetoric and the kind of robust center-right policy-making that the Arias presidency featured.

Otto Guevara : Guevara has seen an increase in support over the last weeks leading up to the election and now claims a 22.9% share of support in the polls. This Sunday, he will be the only viable alternative to the Arias dynasty embodied by Chinchilla. Like Chinchilla, he supports an increase in free trade, but goes even further than her by promoting the complete dollarization of the economy. He hopes that by shifting away from the two currency approach, he can better corral inflation in a manner similar to the precedents followed by Ecuador, El Salvador and Panama. Guevara argues that: “We want Costa Rican salaries to be paid in the same currency as the ones paid to high executives in private banks.” In January, Chinchilla reportedly filed suit against him for libel, after he questioned the origin of the funds she used to build a new house. If true, it will only add to the endemic level of corruption that has dominated the Costa Rican presidency for much of the last two decades.

Ottón Solís: A founder of the Citizens Action Party (PAC), Mr. Solis was the former economy minister under Arias’ first administration from 1986 to 1988 and is currently polling third with 19.9%. Unlike the other two frontrunners, Solís is a strong opponent of CAFTA-DR, the free trade agreement between Costa Rica and a number of other Caribbean basin members, for which Arias has been an enthusiastic supporter. With the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua being the other members of the area free trade agreement, the pact is very much opposed by Solís. In an interview with COHA Research Fellow Michael O’McCarthy several months ago, Ottón Solís stated: “We have achieved more economic progress than other countries in the region due to our social development and not the other way around. CAFTA is a threat to that social, as well as [economic], development.” Ottón Solís’ candidacy has since been endorsed by former president Luis Alberto Monge, and he also has had strong support among young voters between the ages of 25 and 29, as well as those holding a college degree. He has been running on a platform of reduced government spending, which is reflected in the small amount of money he has spent campaigning. He has run for president in the past and has a record of repeatedly coming in third.

Will Chinchilla be an Updated Arias?

Although Arias’ presidential approval rating has fallen to an all time low, it doesn’t seem to be slowing down his former Vice President. Chinchilla has retained the support of the public by increasingly distancing herself from the other candidates while still managing to be critical of Arias’ presidency. However, it remains to be seen if she can bring true change to the presidency or even win the post without a second round. She certainly does not seem to represent progressive change for Costa Rica, as an opponent of gay marriage, abortion and secular, nondenominational government. This comes at a time when Costa Rica is already in danger of straying from the vision that its founders had of a society committed to peace, prosperity and growth.

Juan Mora Fernández became Costa Rica’s first democratically-elected president in September of 1824, only three years after the nation’s independence. His political career developed from the humble origin of an elementary-school educator. He went on to be an advocate for universal education, and founded the first hospital in Costa Rica, effectively laying the foundation for the twentieth century – a vision of successful development within a democratic environment characterized by a respect for human rights.

Under Arias’ stewardship, though, this progressive vision has taken a disappointing step in reverse. During his campaign he had promised the country he would meticulously weigh both the benefits and challenges of a free trade agreement. However, after he won the presidency by a mere 1.2% in March 2006, he wasted no time preparing Costa Rica to join the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). In 2007, voters “narrowly approved” the free trade agreement in Costa Rica’s first nationwide referendum, even after challengers argued that its implementation would be unlawful. Although Costa Rica’s Supreme Court found that this process did not violate the constitution in July of 2006, opponents now claimed that the outcome of that investigation had not been reached in a democratic process. Now with the Constitutional Court, Electoral Tribunal, national media and large businesses in Costa Rica all being transformed into platforms of opportunism by an increasingly cynical Aria, the question is, will there be more of the same under Chinchilla?

On January 1, 2009, Costa Rica officially joined CAFTA-DR. In an interview with BBC News, former Deputy Secretary General of Partido Movimiento Libertario in Costa Rica, Jose Joaquin Fernández, wrote: “CAFTA-DR mandates opening up the telecommunications and insurance industries that are currently controlled by state-run monopolies. Besides being the most important, these industries are the home of the country’s most powerful labor unions, whose interests would be seriously suborned by opening up their respective markets.” Signing onto CAFTA-DR had little to do in respect for a step towards democratic institutions for Costa Ricans, but rather represented a step towards enabling transnational corporations to mandate that labor rights, wages, and the terms of direct foreign investment in their country, will be treated in a manner conforming to a neoliberal policy. The potential that the Liberal National Party (PLN) will have to dominate Congress is perhaps even more disturbing than the possible hand-over of the presidency. According to La Nación, out of the 57 legislative seats in the Congress that are up for election, PLN has a very high chance of securing 22 of these.

Nationals Question the Validity of the Media and Democratic Process
The sources of national media that are mainly turned to Costa Ricans and the international community also can be questioned regarding their integrity. For example, Luis Roberto Zamora Bolaños, a highly regarded Costa Rican lawyer who has more than once has forced the Costa Rican government to live up to its own standards in regard to human rights issues, expressed doubts about the legitimacy of the upcoming ballot. A native of Costa Rica, Zamora found that president Arias’ company, Grupo Sama, holds stock in one form or another in three of the four most popular newspapers there. Zamora believes that the poll results’ credibility already has been tarnished and that the projected number of ballots being cast according to the newspapers have been doctored and do not accurately represent the views of the electorate.

In addition to this, according to Zamora, “any person in office is not allowed to support any candidates… by Costa Rican law.” This has not been respected by those in office or enforced by the Electoral Tribunal this instance, nor in the past, when member of Congress participated in advocating the infamous referendum on Costa Rica’s entrance to CAFTA. Sadly, the young lawyer believes that the Costa Rica of the past has been tarnished by corruption. “Democracy and institutionalism are not a part of the government’s vocabulary,” he stated, then adding that for the average Costa Rican, it is “too much to face the fact that votes are not going to count.”

Concluding Remarks
On election-day, 200 international monitors will be present to ensure that elections are fair and transparent. Out of those 200, 53 representatives will come from the Organization of American States (OAS) which has been involved in monitoring many elections throughout Latin America. However, some San José critics of Arias’ administration in San José are anticipating that questions will be raised concerning the impartiality of the media coverage as well as the validity of the vote counting itself in the case of very close races.
As the polls tighten, the key question will be if a run-off election is called for, or, as Zamora asserted, if the government had already determined its winner. If Chinchilla is elected it will be interesting to see how Costa Ricans subsequently respond to Arias’ former Vice President as their new leader, especially at a time when the public opinion of the outgoing president is at a historic low point.